Council of Senior Scholars (Saudi Arabia)
The Council of Senior Scholars (Majlis Hay'at Kibar al-‘Ulama, also known as the Senior Council of Ulema) is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's highest religious body, and advises the king on religious matters. The council is appointed by the king, with salaries paid by the government, and as of 2009, was made up of 21 members. Saudi King Fahd has continued the precedent set by earlier kings of meeting weekly with Council members who resided in the capital, Riyadh. As of 2010, Saudi King Abdullah decreed that only members of the Council and a few other clerics could issue fataawa in Saudi Arabia. (List of members of the council as of June 2013)
Prior to 1971, the council met informally, headed by the Grand Mufti. (As of 2009, the Grand Mufti—Sheikh Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al Shaykh—is still the head of the council.) On 29 August 1971 King Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz issued a royal decree establishing the Council.
Until 2009, the body was restricted to members of the Hanbali madhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence). On 14 February of that year King Abdullah expanded the Committee to include scholars from the other three Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Shafi'i, Hanafi and Maliki). Despite the newfound diversity, observers note that the scholars continue to hold very similar positions in regard to ʿAqīdah (creed).
According to Simon Henderson, the council must give a fatwa of approval before a new king is crowned. According to the Columbia World Dictionary of Islamism, the council serves in theory to guide the Saudi king and to verify his "fidelity" to the Wahhabi principle of "absolute obedience" to Islamic law upon which "the absolute authority of the sovereign" over the Saudi population rests. However in practice the council "virtually never expresses opposition to any proposal from the royal family.".
- Support for monarchy
The Council is often used to provide religious support for government edicts. For example in 2011 it issued a fatwa ruling against protest demonstrations calling them "deviant intellectual and partisan connections". Demonstrations "and anything that leads to disunity and fragmentation of the nation" were not allowed under Sharia (Islamic law). Reform could only come from giving advice and counsel, "and not by issuing and collecting signatures on intimidating and incendiary statements that violate what God the most High has commanded" (sura 4, aya 83, of the Koran were cited in support).
It is rarely in opposition to government policy, and when it does disagree, the Council generally expresses it by silence. Observers differ as to how much influence the Council has. Many believe the government generally consults the Council prior to issuing legislation, while other believe that "more often than not", the government does "as it likes and then seeks approval after the fact". According to Christopher Boucek, the influence of the Council and ulema in general varies according to how "secure" the royal family feels. Great levels of royal confidence lead to less disregard shown to, and greater control over the religious establishment. Unlike Shia ulema, Saudi scholars do not have income-generating lands or endowments to fund them and are dependent on government salaries.
In 1992 King Fahd pressured seven members of the Senior Ulema into retirement after they failed to sign a letter condemning conservative attacks on the al-Saud family. In 2009, another member—Sheikh Saad bin Nasser al-Shithri—was pressured to resign after he opposed gender mixing at the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, the first co-ed university in the Kingdom.
The Senior Council assists in reviewing requests for fatwas prepared by the four (or five) member Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas whose membership is drawn from the Senior Council. The members of the Senior Council are appointed to four year terms. In 2010, Saudi King Abdullah decreed that only officially approved religious scholars would be allowed to issue fatwas in Saudi Arabia, primarily the members the Council of Senior Scholars. At least one Islamic fatwa website Islam-QA run by Saudi Islamic scholar Muhammad Al-Munajid was banned in Saudi Arabia as a result.
The Senior Council and the Permanent Committee issue fatwas, the imams communicate them, and the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice enforces their rulings.
While the ulema of Saudi Arabia and the Council are sometimes used interchangeably (for example here), in fact, of the estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people that make up the ulama and their families, only thirty to forty of the most senior scholars "exercised substantive political influence".
- "Saudi Arabia: The Coming Storm" By Peter W. Wilson p. 26-27
- "Saudi Fatwa Restrictions and the State-Clerical Relationship"| by Christopher Boucek| Carnegie Endowment| 27 October 2010
- "Council of Senior Ulama". globalsecurity.org. Retrieved 11 March 2014.
- Islamopedia: "Standing Committee for Scholarly Research and Issuing Fatwas, (Saudi Arabia)" retrieved 22 June 2013
- Henderson, Simon. "After King Abdullah Succession in Saudi Arabia". August 2009. Washington Institute for Near East Policy. p. 9. Retrieved 19 March 2014. "The ulama must then declare the new king an imam (Muslim leader). The declaration can only be made on the basis of a fatwa indicating that the decision is legitimate. The approval of the nation’s religious leaders not only authenticates the succession on religious grounds but also serves as a reminder of the historically close relationship between the House of Saud and the dominant Wahhabi version of Islam in the kingdom. In theory, a danger exists that the ulama will be independent in its judgment and issue a fatwa bequeathing leadership outside the normal line of succession, but this has never happened. The ulama issuing the fatwa comprises members of the Supreme Religious Council, appointed by the king."
- Olivier Roy, Antoine Sfeir (ed.). Columbia World Dictionary of Islamism. p. 403. "Abd el-Wahhab's doctrine lays down that people are subject to the absolute authority of the sovereign in return for the sovereign's absolute obedience to the law of God ... The sovereign's fidelity to his commitment must therefore be verified by a body of `ulema` whose role is to examine his politices to verfy that they conform to the principles of Islam"
- "Saudi Arabia: The Regime Invokes Sharia Law to Prevent Public Protest". 10 March 2011. Library of Congress, US. Retrieved 18 March 2014.
- an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
- Hoteit, Lamis; Courtney C. Radsch (4 October 2009). "Saudi cleric sacked over co-ed university spat". AL Arabiya News. Retrieved 25 February 2014.
- Saudi Gazette: "Council of Senior Ulema reconstituted" 22 June 2013| (list of members of the council)
- Al Arabiya: "Saudi Arabia blocks 'Islam Question and Answer'" (in Arabic) 2 September 2010
- General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta' (Fatawa of Council of Senior Scholars), retrieved 9 March 2014